Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/August 1899/The United States National Museum




A NATIONAL museum should be the center of scientific activity in the country in which it is located. In England the British Museum is the Mecca of scientific men. In Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, Berlin, and other capitals of Europe the national museum stands in similar relations to the scientific work of its own country. Such a relation our National Museum should hold to scientific men and affairs in America. It should receive and take care of all material that has been or may be valuable for investigation or for the illustration of the ethnology, natural history, geology, products, and resources of our own country, or for comparison with the material of other countries. It should furnish material for all kinds of scientific investigations which deal with specimens or types, and give aid to such researches and publish their results. It should present by illustration such of the results of the scientific investigations of its corps of officers as are susceptible of such representation. It should co-operate with all the higher educational institutions of learning in the country, and assist in the promotion and diffusion of knowledge in all lines of investigation carried on by it. It should provide library facilities, and aid all post-graduate students who may wish to take advantage of the provisions made by the Government for scientific research.

History and Present Organization.—Beginning in a small way in the Patent-Office building early in the century, the "Government" collections of "natural products" were transferred to the custody of the Smithsonian Institution in 1858, where they were installed along with the larger and more valuable collections of the institution. Twenty-three years later, in 1881, the present National Museum building was ready for the great mass of material that had accumulated in the Smithsonian building, and had been transferred from the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia. Out of these heterogeneous collections Dr. G. Brown Goode, under the direction of Secretary Baird, of the Smithsonian, organized a museum of broad scope, based on all that had proved best in museum experience to that time. Faithfully he carried forward the work until September, 1896, when his health broke under the strain of too many duties, and one of the best museum administrators the world has yet produced, if not the very best one, passed from us. In January, 1897, I was placed in temporary charge of the administration of the museum as an acting Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and remained in charge until July 1, 1898.

On July 1, 1897, in order to meet changed conditions, a new plan of organization went into effect. The various divisions and sections of anthropology, biology, and geology, which had previously been conducted independently of one another, the curators and custodians reporting directly to the assistant secretary in charge of the museum, were united under three head curators—one of anthropology, another of biology, and a third of geology. This secured direct expert supervision, and correlated the work of each department. Before this such correlation had been impossible, owing to the large number of independent heads of sections and divisions in each department, who planned and executed the work more or less independently of one another.

In the department of anthropology the system of installation inaugurated by Prof, W. H. Holmes is somewhat elaborate. The primary arrangement is founded, first, on the geographical or ethnographical assemblage, and, second, on the developmental or genetic assemblage. Other methods may be classed as special; they are the chronologic, the comparative, the individual, etc. The primary methods are adapted to the presentation of the general truths of anthropology, and the special methods are available for limited portions of the field.

In many ways the department of biology, under the charge of Dr. F. W. True, was, at the date named, in much better condition than either of the other two departments. Many of the zoölogical divisions had been in existence since the reorganization of the museum, in 1883, and several of them for a much longer period, and as the biological specimens had been in charge of curators and assistants who followed well-defined and long-established methods, the reorganization of the department was a relatively simple matter, no radical changes in the scientific methods or in the business administration being required.

To the organization and administration of the department of geology, Dr. George P. Merrill brought the results of a recent study of various European museums. He found it necessary to make a systematic examination of the written and printed records of the various Government exploring expeditions and surveys, with a view to ascertaining what geological material had been collected which could properly be considered the property of the Government, and what disposition had been made of the same. The law[1] provides that collections made for the Government shall, "when no longer needed for investigations in progress, be deposited in the National Museum. It was found that this law had not in all cases been strictly enforced, and that several important collections had not been transferred to the museum, although some of the earlier exploring expeditions had passed out of existence, and in several instances the individuals making the collections had likewise passed away. This investigation has resulted in the transfer to the museum of several car loads of specimens no longer needed elsewhere.

The National Museum is unique among permanent museums in having large sections of its collections almost constantly away from it. It made displays at London in 1883, at Louisville in 1884, at Minneapolis in 1887, at Cincinnati and Marietta in 1888, at Madrid in 1892, at Chicago in 1893, at Atlanta in 1895, at Nashville in 1896, and at Omaha in 1898. The injury to the museum resulting from the packing and transportation of specimens and from the interruption of systematic work and development has been keenly felt at times by the scientific staff. The advantages have consisted in showing to the people of many sections of the country what the museum is doing, in securing collections that otherwise would not have been obtained, and in extending the educational sphere of influence.

Relations to the Smithsonian Institution.—The museum is a child that has by its vigorous growth already overshadowed the parent institution in the extent of its buildings, its expenditures, and its direct influence upon the people of the United States. In the larger fields for which the Smithsonian Institution was organized, for the purpose of increasing and diffusing knowledge among men throughout the world, the museum is subordinate to the institution, and if the latter is administered in the future as it has been in the past, it will continue to hold a unique place among all institutions for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

In 1877 Prof. Asa Gray, as chairman of a special committee of the Regents of the Smithsonian, submitted a report which recommended that a distinction between the institution itself and the museum under its charge should be made as prominent as possible. The fear was expressed that if the museum was developed to its full extent and importance within the Smithsonian Institution it would absorb the working energies of the institution, and it was thought that such a differentiation would pave the way to entire separation of administration or to some other adjustment, as the Board of Regents might think best or be able to accomplish. Professor Baird, in 1878, in his report to the regents, called attention to the frequent mention in the reports of his predecessor of the relations existing between the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum, and remarked that "it is only necessary to mention briefly that the museum constitutes no organic part of the institution, and that, whenever Congress so directs, it may be transferred to any designated supervision without affecting the general plans and operations connected with the 'increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.'"

During the administration of the museum by Dr. Goode, under the direction of Professor Baird, and later Professor Langley, no movement was made toward the separation of the museum from the Smithsonian. On the contrary, Dr. Goode was strongly opposed to any such action, and in this he was heartily supported by Secretary Langley. He felt that the result of placing the museum under the control of one of the great departments of the Government, or leaving it to be buffeted about in the sea of politics as an independent organization, would be the destruction of its scientific character.

I have been intimately acquainted with the administration of the museum since 1886, and less so with the administration of other scientific bureaus of the Government, one of which, the Fish Commission, is independent of departmental control. After a careful reconsideration of the subject of the relations of the National Museum to the Smithsonian Institution, I have come to the conclusion that the present welfare and the future development of the museum will be best served by administrative connection with the Smithsonian Institution. Under the present organization there is no necessity for large demand upon the time and energies of the secretary by the affairs of the museum. If in the future it should become otherwise, relief could readily be secured by action of the Board of Regents, requiring the officer in charge of the museum to report to them through the secretary, much as the various bureaus of the departments report through their respective secretaries to Congress. It is not probable, however, that this will become necessary, for at any time an assistant secretary could be appointed to take sole charge of the museum, thus relieving the secretary of all but the most general administrative supervision.

Relations to a National University.—A national museum should radiate an educational influence to the remotest portions of the country. It should set the standard for all other museums, whether in public school, academy, college, university, or the larger museums under municipal and State control. Its influence should be exercised largely through its publications and through those who come to study its collections and the methods of work of the investigators connected directly or indirectly with its scientific staff. In its library system the student should have access to the literature bearing upon the subjects with which the museum is concerned. In its exhibition halls each object should be labeled and arranged with the view of presenting, by graphic illustration and concise description, all that it is capable of teaching, either as a discrete object or as one of a series of objects telling the story of the evolution of the group to which it belongs. Such a museum is not a place where the uninformed student may obtain the elements of a university training; it is an institution where the post-graduate student can secure access to material for study and research in connection with men who are carrying forward scientific work of the highest type. Dr. D. C. Gilman would go further than this. He says:[2]

"Any person of either sex, from any place, of whatever age, without any question as to his previous academic degree, should be admissible; provided, however, that he demonstrate his fitness to the satisfaction of the leader in the subject of his predilection."

Dr. Gilman thinks that such an organization "may be developed more readily around the Smithsonian Institution, with less friction, less expense, less peril, and with the prospect of more permanent and widespread advantages to the country, than by a dozen denominational seminaries or one colossal university of the United States.

"To the special opportunities that the Smithsonian and its affiliations could offer, every university, at a distance or near by, might be glad to send its most promising students for a residence of weeks, months, or years, never losing control of them. Many other persons, disconnected with universities, but proficient to a considerable degree in one study or another, would also resort with pleasure and gratitude, and with prospect of great advantages, to the rare opportunities which Washington affords for study and investigation in history, political science, literature, ethnology, anthropology, medicine, agriculture, meteorology, geology, geodesy, and astronomy."

I fully agree with him, but would make the National Museum the center of activity, rather than the Smithsonian Institution. It would then be under the control of the Board of Regents, through the secretary or the assistant secretary, who could have direct charge. It seems to me that the function of the Smithsonian Institution is to aid at the beginning of such a movement, and then place the administration in charge of one of its bureaus or transfer it to some other suitable organization.

With the National Museum as a center or base, the student in Washington may avail himself of the Library of Congress and of the facilities offered for study and investigation by the various scientific bureaus of the Government, such as the Fish Commission, the Zoölogical Park, the Geological and Coast and Geodetic Surveys, the Naval Observatory, and the Weather, Botanical, Biological, and Entomological Bureaus of the Department of Agriculture, and systematic courses of lectures will place before him the most advanced ideas and conclusions of the largest body of scientific investigators in the world.

A single well-trained man, with a few assistants, could render invaluable aid to hundreds of post-graduate and special students, whose only need is direction as to the best means of pursuing studies and investigations. Such an organization could be located in the administrative building that it has been proposed to erect as a nucleus of the National University. From this beginning a national university of the broadest type could be developed with as much rapidity as the educational interests of the country might demand.

The National Museum can not at present give facilities to more than a score of students, but with the erection of a modern museum building, well equipped with laboratory space and a suitable staff to conduct the necessary work of installation and investigation, the scientific side of the National University would be established. It should be remembered that many of the officers of the scientific bureaus of the Government are directly connected with the museum staff as honorary curators and custodians, and that a number of them have laboratories within the museum building.

Need of a New Building.—The growth of the United States National Museum was rapid under the successful administration of Dr. Goode. When the character of the building and the funds available for the maintenance of the museum are considered, it compares favorably with any modern museum. It has received large collections from the scientific departments of the Government, by private contribution, by purchase, and by exchange, which have been accommodated as well as possible in the inadequate laboratories, storerooms, and exhibition spaces. During the fiscal year 1897-'98, accessions to the number of 1,441 were received, containing upward of 450,000 specimens—the largest number for any one year since the museum was opened. The total number of specimens recorded to July 1, 1898, exceeds four million. The galleries just completed have added sixteen thousand square feet of floor space, which is available for the spreading out and proper exhibition of material that has previously been crowded in the exhibition halls and courts on the floor; but, as an illustration of the present congested conditions, it may be stated that the anthropological collections now in the possession of the Government, ilhistrating the development and progress of man and his works, if properly placed on exhibition, would occupy the entire space in the present museum building. The great collections in biology, botany, economic geology, general geology, and paleontology should be placed in a building properly constructed for their study and exhibition. A considerable portion of the collections are still in the Smithsonian building, where the crowding is scarcely less than in the museum building.

Moreover, in the present building there is great deficiency in laboratory facilities. Curators and assistants are hampered for want of room in which to lay out, arrange, classify, mount, and label specimens. There should also be rooms in which students could bring together and compare various series of objects, and have at hand books and scientific apparatus. The present museum building contains a few rooms suitable for the purposes mentioned, but the majority have to be used as storerooms, laboratories, and offices, and are therefore too much crowded to serve in any one of these capacities. Owing to the pressure for space, courts, halls, and galleries intended for exhibition purposes, both in the Smithsonian building and in the museum building, are unavoidably occupied to a considerable extent as laboratories and storerooms. There is also need of storage room, an increase of the scientific staff, and a purchasing and collecting fund. The American Museum of Natural History expends annually $60,000 for the increase of its collections; the National Museum has from $3,000 to $4,000 for the purpose.

The immediate and greatest need, however, is a suitable museum building. The present building is 375 feet square. The space on the ground floor is 140,625 square feet, and that in the galleries 16,000 square feet; exhibition space, 96,000 square feet. The entire cost is $315,400.

For comparison with the above figures, the following statistics relating to the American Museum of Natural History in New York are given: Total floor space, 294,000 square feet, divided as follows: Exhibition space, 196,000 square feet; laboratories, library, etc., 42,500 square feet; workrooms, storage, etc., 42,000 square feet; lecture hall, 13,500 square feet. These figures include the portions of the building now being completed. The total cost of the museum to date, including the completion of the new wings, is $3,559,470.15. The buildings, and the care of them, are provided for by the city of New York. The expenses of the scientific staff, increase of collections, etc. (the income for which for the present year is approximately $185,000), are defrayed from endowments, membership fees, and contributions. In the capitals of Europe, museum buildings are generously provided for.

The National Museum building was erected with the view of covering the largest amount of space with the least outlay of money. In this respect it may be considered a success. It is, in fact, scarcely more than the shadow of such a massive, dignified, and well-finished building as should be the home of the great national collections. There is needed at once a spacious, absolutely fireproof building of several stories, constructed of durable materials, well lighted, modern in equipment, and on such a plan that it can be added to as occasion arises in the future. The site for such a building is already owned by the Government; only the building needs to be provided for. What the Capitol building is to the nation, the library building to the National Library, the Smithsonian building to the Smithsonian Institution, the new museum building should be to the National Museum. There should be available:

Sq. ft.
Department of biology 190,000
Department of geology 83,000
Special laboratories for students 5,000
Rough storage, workshops, etc 20,000
Lecture hall 6,000
Total 304,000
Present museum space to be devoted to the department of anthropology 96,000
Grand total 400,000

Future Development.—With suitable buildings provided, the immediate development of the National Museum naturally lies in four directions: (1) The occupation of the present building by the anthropological collections; (2) the housing, developing, and installing of the large biological collections; (3) the development of a great museum of practical geology; and (4) the development of the scientific side of a National University.

1. The collections in anthropology, as they stand to-day, cover a wide field in a broken and disconnected way. It is difficult to use them effectively to illustrate the great features of this branch of science. They do not present a connected story of the peoples and cultures of the world. This arises from the gaps in the collections and the absence of suitable laboratory and exhibition space. This department should have adequate representations of the American peoples and their culture, not only of our own country, but of the whole American continent. Our nation is the only one in America that can reasonably be expected to do anything of importance toward the preservation of the materials necessary for the illustration of this vast field; and as the American race is a unit, of which the tribes in our own territory constitute a considerable part, it appears to be our duty to take up this work in a comprehensive way. Thus would be built up not only a National Museum, but an American Museum in the widest sense. This applies not only to anthropology, but to the other great departments of the museum. It will be impossible to carry on such a work without turning over to the Department of Anthropology the entire present building, with all its laboratory and exhibition space.

2. The Department of Biology now occupies a large exhibition space in the Smithsonian building and 55,000 square feet in the museum building. Large collections are stored in laboratories and inclosed spaces in the exhibition halls which would be placed on exhibition if space were available. As has already been explained, in a new building there should be available for the Department of Biology 190,000 square feet of exhibition, laboratory, and storage space.

The present exhibit is more complete than that of the other departments of the museum. Of birds there is a large mounted series, one of the finest in existence, but it is so indifferently housed that it fails to make the impression it should. Of mammals there is a good North American series, and there are some excellent examples of exotic species. There is a good and rather large exhibit of the various groups of the lower forms of animals, including an especially fine series of corals and sponges. These are the only series at present exhibited which can be considered at all comprehensive. Of the great groups of fishes, reptiles, and amphibians there is room only for an outline representation. The wonderful variety of form among insects can be scarcely more than suggested in the space available. Of plants there has hitherto been no exhibit worthy of the name, and the space which it has now been possible to set aside is entirely out of proportion to the vast extent and importance of this great kingdom of Nature.

Every natural-history museum of the first class should have at least two comprehensive exhibition series. The first, the Systematic Series, is a series representing the natural groups, among which all animals and plants, from the highest to the lowest, are divided. The second, the Faunal and Floral Series, is a series showing the animals and plants characteristic of each of the grand divisions of the earth's surface, which naturalists have established as a result of their study of these two kingdoms of Nature. These two great comprehensive exhibits should be supplemented by a number of Special Series, illustrating the "more interesting phenomena and phases of life, such as the macroscopic and microscopic structure of animals and plants and their development from the germ to the fully adult individual, and special modifications of form and color by which animals are protected from their enemies; the adaptations for peculiar environments and modes of life; the characteristics of youth, maturity, and old age; the variation in form, size, and color among individuals of the same species; the domiciles and other works constructed by birds, mammals, insects, and the like. To these series should be added another of great importance, the Economic Series, representing the animals and plants as related to the activities and needs of man. Any one of these principal series in its full development would more than fill the entire space now available.

3. There should be developed a museum of practical geology in the broadest sense, which will be of service to every producer and consumer of American mineral products, and to all students of geology who are engaged in either economic or purely scientific investigations.

In addition to the series of rocks and fossils illustrating the stratigraphy and succession of the sedimentary rocks and the systematic collection of minerals and ores, an exhibit showing how geologic work benefits the daily life of the people should be developed. An illustration of this would be a representation of the artesian-water supply of the semi-arid region, showing the stratification and structure of the sedimentary rocks, and how hydrographic and geologic investigations clearly indicate the regions in which artesian-water development may be carried on successfully. Mining and areal geology could also be illustrated in such manner as to place before the student and intelligent observer the import and value of such work.

In most museums the principal effort has been to make a collection of useful mineral products. This is desirable, but, from the broad view of illustrating the practical in addition to the scientific side of geology, it should be secondary. The best basis for classification on the practical side of the museum exhibit appears to be the finished mineral product. For instance, if pig iron be taken as a key material in classification, the iron ores from which it has been obtained should be arranged so as to show the various kinds whose combination has resulted in the pig iron. In connection with this should be grouped the geologic phenomena, which should include any geologic conditions connected with the original deposition and the occurrence of iron ores. This might include the conditions which have led to the oxidation of pyrite and other sulphur compounds of iron, and to the development of hydrous oxides of iron; also an illustration of what has been demonstrated in regard to the solution of widely distributed minerals in certain rocks, and their subsequent concentration in ore bodies by metasomatic action. All the metals could be arranged under such a classification, as also the nonmetallic products. The preparation of such an exhibit would require many years of work, the details of which would be considered as each mineral product was taken in hand.

4. The fourth direction of development is toward the requirements of a National University, which has already been sufficiently dwelt upon in this connection.

Children's Museum.—The children gain a fair amount of information from the general exhibit in any well-arranged museum, but it is desirable that their interest should be aroused by having certain exhibits made expressly for them. I would have a space set aside in each of the three departments in which nothing should be exhibited except for the children. It might be called a Museum Kindergarten.

Some of the preceding suggestions have been adopted by the museum authorities and partially put into execution, and the carrying of them out is dependent upon enlarged facilities for laboratory work and exhibition space. During the administration of Dr. Goode the museum developed as far as possible under the conditions surrounding it. No one knew better than he that only by securing new buildings and expanding the museum could it take the place in America that the several national museums of Europe have taken in their respective countries. It is well recognized that a public museum is a necessity in every highly civilized community, and that, as has been so well stated by Dr. Goode, "the degree of civilization which any nation, city, or province has attained is best shown by the character of its public museums and the liberality with which they are maintained." At present New York city is, in this respect, in advance of all other American cities and of the national Government. Whether the latter will take its proper place by developing the National Museum as it has developed the National Library remains to be seen. The question whether they are willing to be represented by the museum as it is today is one that the American people should consider and decide at an early date; meantime, it is the duty of all interested in the advancement of science and education to aid by every means in their power the development of a National Musum that will be truly national and American.

  1. "And all collections of rocks, minerals, soils, fossils, and objects of natural history, archæology, and ethnology, made by the Coast and Interior Survey, the Geological Survey, or by any other parties for the Government of the United States, when no longer needed for investigations in progress, shall be deposited in the National Museum.…"—Supplement to the Revised Statutes of the United States, vol. i, second edition, 1874-1891, p 252.
  2. Century Magazine, vol. iv, 1897, p. 156.